The drug trade across the United States-Mexico border and the cartels that have spawned from it have been explored in plenty of films, from the documentary Cartel Land, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, to this year’s gripping thriller, Sicario, it seems like there hasn’t been any stone left unturned. And in the documentary, Kingdom of Shadows, writer and director, Bernardo Ruiz, explores the many facets of the effects of the drug trade through many different outlets, but they’re not enough to form a cohesive film.
There are distinctly three focal points when examining the drug war. The first one is the work that Sister Consuela Morales, a Roman Catholic nun working in Monterrey, Mexico as a kind of liaison between the families of thousands of missing people, “the disappeared,” and law enforcement; the second is Oscar Hagelsieb, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security in El Paso who once lived and experienced first-hand accounts of the drug war; and finally, Don Ford Jr., a Texan farmer-turned-convicted-drug-smuggler.
All three provide a unique take on the drug war, horrific stories about its bleeding into civilian life, the increase in violence and disappearances (23,000 in 2007), and the Mexican people’s continued distrust of law enforcement officials who are often paid off by the drug cartels. There is no blatant violence shown in the film and the narrators all conclude that they are essentially a part of a much bigger picture, a symptom of a virus that seems to have no end.
Director Bernardo Ruiz gives us snippets of every different scenario, but as a film, it never gains any momentum and remains stagnant throughout. The stories themselves, as told with the use of voice-overs for the most part, are powerful and strong in their own right. The issue is that they never overlap to become a cohesively-told story. Kingdom of Shadows may have worked better as a direct interview format because, with three stories taking up most of the film, it doesn’t quite come together and because of this, it lacks the kind of meaningful impact a film like this could have had.